Safety Culture: Why feeling connected to your colleagues matters

Last season we brought you an introduction to Safety Culture and Safety Science with Mike Cull.  Well guess who’s back? On today’s episode Cassie & Pete welcome Mike Cull and his colleague Elizabeth Riley to talk about Why Feeling Connected to your Colleagues Matters.  Mike and Elizabeth will help us explore the connection between psychological safety and workplace connectedness, they’ll talk to us about professional intimacy, and help us strategize how to use these concepts in the workplace.

Guest Info:

Michael Cull, PhD

Mike is Associate Professor, Health Management and Policy in the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. He is also an Associate Director in the Center for Innovation in Population Health. Mike’s work focuses on quality improvement and system reform efforts in child welfare jurisdictions. He has specific expertise in applying safety science to improve safety, reliability and effectiveness in organizations. His approach leverages tools like organizational assessment and systems analysis of critical incidents, including deaths and near deaths, to build team culture and help systems learn and get better.

Elizabeth Riley, PhD

Elizabeth is an Assistant Professor of Health Management and Policy in the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. Elizabeth works closely with Mike on systems improvement efforts in child welfare jurisdictions around the country, and she leads much of the work around organizational assessment and data communication. Elizabeth is passionate about working with systems to help them leverage data to drive change, including working to make data and research more accessible and equitably disseminated

Host Info:

Pete Cudney, LICSW

Pete is a Training and Coaching Specialist at VT-CWTP.  Prior to this role, Pete practiced clinically, providing therapy for children and families impacted by complex trauma, evaluating children for the impacts of trauma, and training agencies on trauma informed care.

Cassie Gillespie, LICSW

Cassie is the Workforce Training Team Lead at VT- CWTP. Cassie is a former FSD worker, and Training & Coaching specialists, and also works as an adjunct faculty member in the Social Work Department at the University of Vermont.

Show Notes:

Listen: Link to Podcast Episode- Safety Culture with Mike Cull Part 1:

Watch: Mike talk about ways to create a safety culture.

Explore: Center for Innovation & Population Health:

Check out these Safe Systems Shorts from Mike & Elizabeth’s team

Desk Guide on Psychological Safety


Cassie Gillespie (00:02):

Hello, I’m Cassie Gillespie. And you’re listening to Welcome to the Field. A podcast produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership, and the State of Vermont. Welcome to the Field is designed for child welfare workers, caregivers, and community partners. However, this season, we will be talking all about uncomfortable conversations and each episode will touch on a different type of uncomfortable conversation. So even if you’re not working or caregiving in the child welfare field, this season might be for you. Today, my cohost Pete Cudney and I have the privilege of talking to Mike Cull about safety culture. Now, if you’ve been a longtime listener, you’ll remember that we chatted with Mike about safety culture last season, and that episode is still there. And you might wanna go back and give it a listen. If you haven’t yet to hear what this is all about. Today, we will specifically be talking about why feeling connected to your colleagues matters.

Cassie Gillespie (00:55):

We’ll get into psychological safety and professional intimacy and lots of interesting conversations. This time Mike has brought along his colleague, Elizabeth Riley. Elizabeth is an assistant professor of health management and policy in the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. And she works closely with Mike on systems improvement efforts in child welfare jurisdictions around the country. Elizabeth leads much of the work around organizational assessment and data communication. And she’s incredibly passionate about working with systems to help them leverage data, to drive change, including working to make data and research more accessible and equitably disseminated. You might remember that Mike is an associate professor of health management and policy in the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky, but he’s also the associate director at the Center for Innovation and Population Health. Mike’s work focuses on quality improvement and system reform efforts in child welfare jurisdictions. And he has specific expertise in applying safety science to improve safety, reliability, and effectiveness in organizations. Joining me as co-host today is Pete Cudney. Pete is a training and coaching specialist at the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership. And prior to joining us at the partnership, Pete practiced clinically providing therapy and evaluation for children and families impacted by complex trauma for over 20 years. Here we go. Welcome Mike.

Michael Cull (02:22):

Hi Cassie.

Cassie Gillespie (02:23):

Thanks for joining us and special welcome to you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Riley (02:26):

Thanks so much. I’m glad to be here.

Cassie Gillespie (02:27):

We’re really excited to have you.

Pete Cudney (02:29):

Yes, we are. So before we dive into talking about elements of safety culture that we measure, Mike, would you talk with us a little bit about organizational culture more generally, how safety culture kind of fits into that and how we measure organizational culture?

Michael Cull (02:50):

Sure. So organizational culture can sometimes be this complicated construct to talk about and to define and can feel a little abstract at times. And we generally think about an organization’s culture is a reflection of its values, beliefs, and behaviors of the professionals working inside the organization and in a safety culture, those values, beliefs, behaviors, sort of all orient towards safe, effective service provision, whatever that service might be. So you, you see safety culture discussed, talked about measured to your point in places like aviation and healthcare, and now, you know, we’re doing it in child welfare. And so we don’t think it’s an abstract idea. We think it can be observed and measured and we think it can be changed. And so that’s the work we do in child welfare.

Pete Cudney (03:41):

Great. Thank you. That’s helpful.

Cassie Gillespie (03:43):

And one of the things that we knew we really wanted to dig in with you a little bit today is psychological safety. So Mike, could you tell us a little bit about what psychological safety is and maybe even more importantly, what psychological safety is not?

Michael Cull (03:57):

Yeah, that’s a really good way to frame the question cuz I, I think it’s gotten a lot of attention. It gets a lot of discussion in the literature. It it’s showing up in a lot of different fields and a lot of different areas, but I think oftentimes it gets misinterpreted. Psychological safety is this shared belief kind of comes from shared experiences of a team doing teamwork. It’s this state of feeling accepted, respected, supported. You feel like you’re part of a team importantly that you feel free to speak up, take risks. And it’s a place where mistakes are treated as opportunities to learn not opportunities to punish and blame what it’s not is just this comfortable space where folks just feel, you know, happy all the time and never experienced discomfort because to do those things I just described, you have to be able to challenge one another, speak up, be candid. And sometimes those things can be difficult. There’s a lot of things that get in the way of people’s ability to speak up and feel safe. And when they make errors feel like they won’t be punished and it’s hard sometimes on a team to really respect that value of treating a mistake as a, as an opportunity to learn and not sort of falling into those traps of punishing and blaming folks for what they do.

Cassie Gillespie (05:10):

Yeah. We’ve all been so conditioned to wanna be right. Right? And to be comfortable. It’s really tricky to lean into the places where we may have made a mistake.

Pete Cudney (05:19):

Yeah. That concept of psychological safety does seem really, really critical and, and nuanced. And, and I think it’s on one of a number of different domains if I’m not mistaken that, that you measure when you’re looking at safety culture. And so Elizabeth if I could pick your brain a little bit, another domain that we’ve talked about is, is workplace connectedness. Could you help us understand what that is? And, and why that also matters in terms of developing a safety culture?

Elizabeth Riley (05:49):

Yeah, absolutely. So I think workplace connectedness is something that’s been studied in a variety of different industries for, for quite some time. I mean, it’s been studied for, for decades on, on teams and in workplaces. And I think the most the most widely studied aspect of workplace connectedness is something called team cohesion. And so you can, you know, think about a team as connecting over a task or connecting kind of socially with each other. And so when we talk about workplace connectedness, typically we think about, you know, how connected people feel to each other on their teams and in their workplaces more broadly. So do they feel like they can ask people for help? Do they feel as though they can work with their coworkers, you know, without sacrificing principles. Do they talk about a team as, as we and us as opposed to they and them. And it really is, I think, foundational to psychological safety, to a lot of the, of the safety culture constructs that we talk about. You know, it’s psychological safety is not the same thing as, as you know, comfort as, as you’ve been talking about. And it’s not the same thing as trust, but we think that having a really strong connection with your colleagues in the workplace really helps to build some of those other aspects of a safety culture that we really care about.

Pete Cudney (06:59):

Yeah. That makes sense. It, I mean, it certainly matches some of my lived experience and this may be going a little bit off script, but if I’m not mistaken in some of our conversations, Elizabeth, I think you talked about correlations between some positive outcomes and that those are more frequently associated with this sense of a connection to a group versus just feeling secure, like with an individual supervisor. Am I right about that thinking?

Elizabeth Riley (07:26):

Absolutely. Yeah. And it, it seems like there’s a, a difference potentially between, you know, feeling connected to your teammates and the people that you’re working with on a consistent basis and, and making decisions with, and relying on for help there, then it would be kind of relationships with your supervisor, not to say that that’s not important.

Pete Cudney (07:44):


Elizabeth Riley (07:44):

Relationships with your supervisors are crucial and really critical, particularly in this work. But especially when we’re talking about, you know, making decisions as a team, particularly decisions that really impact children and families, that sense of connection and being able to rely on each other is really, is really important.

Cassie Gillespie (08:00):

One of the things we hear sometimes when we’re working with folks in the field and, you know, I don’t know exactly how this plays out for caregivers, but I know this plays out in the workforce quite a bit, is this idea of workers saying, well, I don’t wanna be friends with everybody that I work with. I don’t need to hang out with everyone that I see all day, every day outside on nights and on weekends. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the interplay between workplace connectedness, being slightly different from actually being kind of in like friendships with everyone that you work with.

Elizabeth Riley (08:31):

That is such a great point. I’m glad that you raised that Cassie. Cause I think that those are really different. You know, I can be close with someone and rely on someone in a different context than I might outside, outside of work in, in a social place. And so when we think about workplace connectedness you’re right, it’s not being friends. It’s not, you know, going out after work and, and hanging out necessarily. Some people certainly do, but really we think about connectedness in the workplace as pretty context specific and, and having this idea that we work together as a team and can sort of rely on each other and really ask each other for help kind of in that context. And that’s really where we think the interplay between something like workplace connectedness and psychological safety comes in because a huge aspect of psychological safety, you know, Mike was talking about how we treat mistakes and how we treat the work that we’re doing.

Elizabeth Riley (09:21):

But another piece of psychological safety is feeling as though it’s easy to ask your teammates for help.

Cassie Gillespie (09:26):

Mm-Hmm, , yeah.

Elizabeth Riley (09:26):

I can rely on them if I’m having a tough day or if I’m feeling really overwhelmed. You know, Mike and I work together a lot and you know, that, that connection and psychological safety, I know Mike really well and, and I trust him and I can say, Hey, Mike, I’m having a tough day. Can you take this off my plate? Or, you know, on the same vein, like, Hey Mike, I’m not sure you’ve thought about this in this way. Why don’t we brainstorm it together? And so having that connection to be able to get along well in the workplace in, in a psychologically safe way is, is different than, you know, us just going out and I don’t know, hanging out after work.

Michael Cull (09:58):

Yeah. I was just discussing this with a, a colleague who works at another university and she was just telling me a story about getting some pushback from other faculty members about this idea. And it seemed very kind of COVID specific and kind of the burnout related to everyone, especially in a university setting where everybody’s shifted and had to go online and all those pressures and this idea that they didn’t feel like they needed to feel the pressure of being friends with or connected to. And where that led us was. It’s a little context specific. It may actually not matter if you feel very psychologically safe, if your only responsibility is to come in and teach a class or to teach a class online or monitor a class online, if however, your responsibilities is keeping kids safe. If we’re not in a relationship on our team where I can feel safe speaking up and giving you the information you may need to go act on to keep a kid safe, that’s really different. And so psychological safety is really important in these safety critical settings where everyone’s work is really interconnected and any one person not being able to share information or you know, as Elizabeth was talking about, sort of ask me to think about things differently. Maybe I didn’t think about it this way, that stuff becomes much more important when the service you’re delivering is about keeping folks safe.

Pete Cudney (11:20):

That is, that is really a helpful kind of focused frame. Mike, I appreciate that. And in your research, in others’ research, in terms of helping teams to deliberately develop increased sense of psychological safety with one another, are there, are there patterns, you know, whether they’re just kind of individual habits that that individuals may bring to the team or more deliberate choices that teams make, what is it that builds psychological safety and what is it that may undermine psychological safety? What are we learning about that?

Michael Cull (11:52):

I might take on the second part of that first? And then, and then we can talk about what we see in our data in terms of the things that are related to psychological safety, but it it’s one of these ideas that when I think about it, it’s both really kind of simple. It’s an E pretty easy concept to understand, but really hard to go implement in a, in a work setting. And I think the biggest thing that gets in the way is what we call the, what if’s, you know, what if I’m wrong, if I speak up and challenge Pete. Or what if I’m viewed as incompetent? You know, what if they don’t like me, people wanna be liked and be a part of our team. You know, what if I’m seen as the negative person or the angry person.

Michael Cull (12:31):

So it’s all those really human interpersonal dynamics that get in the way of people feeling like, you know, they can participate in this way on a team. And then I think it’s also particularly challenging if you’re trying to kind of create this in a space that it didn’t already exist. I think a lot of leaders and a lot of team members participate in this way, very naturally. It’s just intuitive to them to interact in this way. And they intuitively get the value of these kinds of interactions. But if that’s not the case, and if you happen to be on a team where you’ve had a history of kind of punitive reactive behavior, it becomes much more challenging to implement because you’re asking people to take an interpersonal risk. And if you haven’t done the things you need to do to prepare the team and the system to support people in that space, you kind of set ’em up to get hurt.

Michael Cull (13:17):

So if, if we’ve said, you know, we’re gonna, we’re gonna do work in this space. We’re gonna, we understand the value of creating teams that are more connected and more psychologically safe, not just because it’s gonna, you know, help our staff feel better. That’s important, but because we know teams that interact this way in these other safety, critical spaces get better outcomes, then it it’s challenging, cuz you have to have ways of kind of holding each other accountable. You know, you have to do a hard pivot away from those reactive punitive responses, the early research on psychological safety and, and actually what kind of got it into the literature and now into our sort of popular culture was done in the Harvard system. The research team was looking at the relationship between error reporting on nursing units and outcomes, patient outcomes, specifically patient safety related outcomes, things like falls and pressure ulcers, those kinds of things.

Michael Cull (14:14):

So going in, they might have thought, you know, high levels of reported errors on units results in worse outcomes, right? And what they found was the inverse. They found that units that reported a lot of errors actually had better outcomes. And so they went back in to kind of figure out with more of a qualitative approach, what was going on on these units and, and what they found was this. They found that these teams were able to challenge one another. They were able to surface problems in their system, talk about them and therefore go fix them. And they felt a comfort with reporting. They didn’t feel threatened by it. And so this is where this kind of this work emerged from this idea that teams that are able to do those things actually get better outcomes.

Cassie Gillespie (14:55):

Wow. And that’s just so powerful. And if I’m not mistaken, you two and the National Partnership for Child Safety have actually been collecting data on the relationship between psych safety and workplace connectedness. Is that correct?

Elizabeth Riley (15:08):

That is correct.

Cassie Gillespie (15:10):

Can you speak to it a little bit Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Riley (15:11):

Sure. I’d be happy to. So, you’re exactly right. Cassie. We’ve been collecting, we’ve been fortunate to, to have partners in the National Partnership for Child Safety who are really excited and engaged to learn more about safety culture in their workforce. And so we support these teams in these jurisdictions in doing sort of large scale what we call organizational assessments. And so it’s a, it’s a survey that’ll go out to all staff in any given child welfare jurisdiction or social services jurisdiction. And it assesses things like psychological safety and workplace connectedness. And we’ve been finding some really exciting and encouraging things. I mean, I think that, you know, on, on a very kind of basic level, we see a really positive association. So a powerful connection between higher levels of workplace connectedness and higher levels of psychological safety. And so this is at, at the person level.

Elizabeth Riley (16:03):

So people, individuals who have higher levels of connection to their coworkers also report higher levels of psychological safety on their team, which makes a lot of intuitive sense. And so it does, we’ve done that. Yeah. And then that’s true in, in virtually every survey that we’ve done, it’s true throughout the workforce. And then we’ve had the opportunity more recently to do some pretty exciting work in Vermont. So Vermont has done the survey a couple of times. I’ve done the same survey over multiple years. So we’re able to look at these relationships over time and start to really think about how you can build psychological safety or build workplace connectedness. And one thing that we found was that, you know, workplace connectedness is a really powerful predictor of psychological safety over time. And what I mean by that is that, you know, the psychological safety, for example, that somebody experiences in 2022 of course is gonna depend on the amount of psychological safety that they experienced in 2021, psychological safety in, in year one is gonna predict psychological safety in year two.

Elizabeth Riley (17:05):

The really interesting part is that for, of all of those kind of variables that we measured in year one, the only other predictor of psychological safety in year two was workplace connectedness, which was pretty amazing. It predicted psychological safety above and beyond psychological safety in year one, which was really interesting. And so it predicted psychological safety workplace connectedness predicted psychological safety, more so than did emotional exhaustion more so than did how long you’ve been in the workforce, more so than did, how many hours of work you, how, how many hours you worked per week, all of that. And so that really indicates to us, you know, we don’t know the mechanisms exactly yet, but that really indicates to us that building that idea of workplace connectedness is a really powerful aspect of building psychological safety in the workforce as well.

Cassie Gillespie (17:54):

Wow. So for all those folks who are feeling like they don’t need to, or don’t want to spend the time in any type of team development or team building, is it fair to say that the research that you all are doing is showing that there’s really some compelling reasons to wanna put some resources and some time there?

Elizabeth Riley (18:11):

Oh, absolutely. I think the data there is really promising and exciting and we’re gonna be building this data over time, you know, we’ve been able to do this kind of work longitudinally or over time in Vermont. And we’re really excited to get to do it again and across the country.

Cassie Gillespie (18:25):

So cool.

Elizabeth Riley (18:25):

Yeah. It’s I know I’m so excited about it. And I, I think, you know, when, when Pete was talking a little bit earlier about how to build psychological safety or how to build workplace connectedness, if you use the word deliberate, which I think is really key to both of these, to both workplace connectedness and psychological safety that you can’t just assume that it happens or assume that people feel connected or assume that people feel psychologically safe. It really is about that intentionality. It’s about inviting it really intentionally inviting perspectives from other people from your entire team, maybe being particularly intentional about inviting perspectives and challenges and concerns from historically oppressed or marginalized groups. And I think that that intentionality is really key for, for both of these building psychological safety and workplace connectedness.

Pete Cudney (19:11):

Yeah. Yeah. Those are such good points. Go ahead, Mike, yeah.

Michael Cull (19:14):

I was gonna say, I think it might be important to add and you guys, I think know this well from the work we’re doing in Vermont we’re not measuring these things, you know, just because we sit at a university and, and published papers, we you know, like all measurement, you know, it, it really exists for the purposes of communication. We, we measure things like temperature so that you and I can go outside and agree upon what, you know, ad degrees feels like. And so we do this measurement of these constructs that we kind of generally call safety culture, things like workplace connectedness and, and psychological safety. So we can talk about ’em so we can create a language and, and language helps us sort of drive the culture change we’re trying to create. So we’re really intentional as Elizabeth was saying about how we use these scales, how we use the data that we get from these surveys and you know, how we work with the jurisdictions on, on taking that stuff, talking to the professionals in the, in the field and using it to drive change.

Elizabeth Riley (20:09):

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more with that. I think that that’s a really crucial part of all of this work and, you know, something that we say all the time is these surveys. We know that they are blunt instruments that, you know, psychological safety is more than just your answers to six questions on a survey that, that really these kind of data, the research is interesting, of course, as Mike is saying, but these data are most useful for communication and really to start conversations so that, you know, if, if we’re working on a team together, Cassie, you and I can talk together about, you know, there’s this question in the psychological safety scale about interpersonal risk. How safe do we feel taking an interpersonal risk on our team? We can, can then talk about, okay, what does an interpersonal risk mean to me? What does it mean to you? How can we create that safety on our team? Because we know that the, the purpose of these data are really to start conversations about how our teams can be better.

Cassie Gillespie (21:00):

It’s such a great point. And, you know, as you all know, the theme for the season is uncomfortable and conversations and at its surface safety culture and org culture, and all of these really neat constructs might not feel that uncomfortable. But one of the reasons this really makes sense to me and to our team to dig into here is exactly how you’re talking about that Elizabeth. When you really get down to talking with your peers and your coworkers about mistakes or what’s working or taking interpersonal risks, it is really uncomfortable. It’s tremendously activating. So I’m wondering if you have any thoughts Elizabeth, on why else, you know, these ideas are difficult to talk about?

Elizabeth Riley (21:38):

Oh, sure. I mean, I think they’re, they’re, they can be uncomfortable for, for a lot of reasons. I think on a, on a pretty basic level, we are not taught how to have these conversations. It’s not a part of, you know, when we’re in school or in a lot of times in families. I mean, we don’t traditionally have these conversations as a, as a part of our day to day life, maybe we do in our more intimate relationships, which is great, but I don’t think it’s a common practice in many workplaces to really foster the environment, to have these kinds of conversations. You know, we, we are used to doing things like performance reviews or we’re used to doing things like I, I don’t know, having, having supervision, for example, where you’re going through cases or something like that, but you’re maybe not used to having conversations about what is an interpersonal risk, how can we challenge each other safely in the workplace?

Elizabeth Riley (22:31):

So I think, you know, on a very basic level, we don’t necessarily come into the work with these kind of skills. So it’s really something that you need to build. So I think that’s one aspect of it. I think another aspect of it is that kinda like we were speaking about earlier, you know, psychological safety can look and feel so different for different people and, and that’s end connectedness as well, workplace connectedness and those things are that’s okay. It’s okay for workplace connectedness and psychological safety to look and feel a little bit different. As long as we all have this sort of baseline understanding of what it means to be able to work in a blame free environment and call out call out mistakes and those kinds of things, and really learn from them. So I think that even, you know, from a conceptual standpoint, it can be hard to think about what psychological safety is, if you don’t have the time to really reflect on it.

Elizabeth Riley (23:19):

And the third thing I would say about maybe what makes it challenging to talk about is the differences again, back to the individual differences and how people experience it, but that, that is so, or can be so dependent on your identity, your intersection, your past experiences, maybe outside of the workplace that you’re bringing to the workplace. And so we don’t necessarily know a lot yet about how psychological safety might look differently for somebody from a historically marginalized or oppressed group and somebody who’s not from a historically or marginalized in oppressed group. And so I think that being able to, excuse me, talk about psychological safety, it’s often kind of a chicken and egg situations. Like you have to have psychological safety to be able to talk about psychological safety in a really deep and, and challenging way. And so it’s, you know, you’re, you’re building the plan as you’re flying in a little bit in some ways. And so I think that, that makes it a little bit challenging as well.

Pete Cudney (24:13):

Yeah. That so much of what you said resonates for me with my lived experience, Elizabeth you know, I’m just thinking about I’ll, I’ll just identify myself, right? So I’m, I’m a white male, cisgender heterosexual, you know, American and I have needed to learn myself, you know, how to notice when I’m operating with male privilege, how to notice when I’m operating with white privilege, how to receive that feedback from my colleagues. So there’s my own individual skill building in that, but then I think there’s also in my experience been a, a team comfort with that. Can we, the group of people yeah. In this room, right? This specific group of people who are on this team, can we have these conversations in a way that feels safe for everyone. And also also really honest, I, you know, I’m, I’ve found myself thinking about not only the, the social identity, you know, that you’ve talked about but also just our own personal attachment histories ourselves, right.

Pete Cudney (25:17):

Our own.

Cassie Gillespie (25:17):

A hundred percent.

Pete Cudney (25:18):

Right. Sense of security generally in relationships can factor into this. And, and in my experience, a lot of it comes down to individuals and then teams, like you said, taking the risk of being vulnerable. You really have to kind of take the risk with the other people to learn that you can trust one another to have those, those conversations. And in some of those conversations here in Vermont and in one district in particular some folks identified a really interesting question. And they, they started using the term professional intimacy to try to describe the right level of being open and vulnerable with, with colleagues. Even, you know, knowing at times that what they may be thinking about is their own sense of kind of security, their own experiences from their family of origin and, and you know, how that may be playing out in their professional relationships.

Pete Cudney (26:19):

And, and in these team conversations here in Vermont folks’, we’re still kind of grasping, I think for some way of defining, you know, just how vulnerable and intimate does it make sense to be with your professional colleagues? How much is just enough? You know, what’s not enough what’s too much, you know, what are the, the benefits to really kind of staying, keeping yourself buttoned up, so to speak and, you know, just in your professional role versus really opening up more vulnerably. And I’m just curious for both of you whatever thoughts you have about that idea of professional intimacy, you know, how much are we needing to really be vulnerable with, with each other in order to develop this stuff.

Michael Cull (27:06):

I think that’s such an important topic and such a challenging thing to think about. It’s, we’ve had these discussions on our own team and like you, Pete, I’ve gone through that same sort of growth and development. I, I hope. And when we talk about sort of professionalism, it’s so often a reflection of a specific culture, a specific dominant culture, right? And so if that is what professionalism looks like in a particular space, does that create opportunities for other folks to participate fully? And if not, what, what things are we missing? Like what are we losing by putting limits on their ability to feel included and participate? And so it’s really challenging. I mean, I think there are so very many layers. And as Elizabeth was saying, this intersectionality is so important because you can’t feel psychologically safe on a team working professionally if you don’t feel safe from some identity perspective, what, whatever, that might be. Really, really hard, challenging conversations and really important ones that we need to be having.

Michael Cull (28:06):

Cause again, and, and I, I always feel like we need to come back to this because sometimes you lose people in these conversations, this isn’t just in the interest of making people feel good at work. That’s great.

Pete Cudney (28:18):


Michael Cull (28:18):

Awesome. If you enjoy your job, because if you enjoy it, you’re probably likely to stay longer, right? And if you stay longer, you’re gonna build more expertise and you’re gonna be better at what you do, but it’s really in the interest of, you know, helping kids and families and keeping kids safe. And you know, this is the best evidence we have for how teams should participate with one another. So it’s, it’s really, I think probably always important to circle back to that as the goal.

Pete Cudney (28:43):

Yeah. That makes sense. Again, I’m, I’m reflecting on some of the team conversations that I’ve, that I’ve had here in Vermont and you know, whether it’s a team supervisor or, you know, a family service worker, when there’s a team that has, you know, one or two people who are natural leaders who seem to kind of role model comfort with vulnerability, real comfort with inviting feedback, and then really receiving that feedback in an, in an open way that often to me though, you know, the one or two natural leaders that kind of signal to the rest of the team, we can do this, I feel secure. We can do this together. That really seems to help. And, and in one team in particular, I’m, I’m thinking of a couple of folks who have been very good at normalizing conversations about race, about helping white people become comfortable naming that they’re white people, right. And once that conversation, you know, early on, it felt like very thin ice that conversation. And over time with enough kind of repeated efforts, it has, I think, started to just feel very normal to that team that we can talk about race when it’s present. And so, yeah, just, just curious about other experiences that you may have had either with your own team or with other teams in the field that you’ve worked with. Are there other pieces that that folks should be thinking about in terms of this kind of vulnerable sharing?

Elizabeth Riley (30:08):

I’m, I’m really glad Pete, that you brought up kind of this leadership angle, because I think that that is also so crucial on teams, particularly in, on teams or in, in workspaces where there maybe hasn’t been a lot of connectedness or psychological safety in the past that it really is reliant to some degree on leaders modeling that transparency modeling that vulnerability modeling, you know, when they themselves have made a mistake and need to need some help on it, need some help, you know, from their team, checking them on those, their thinking or their, their actions. And so it’s, it’s hard to build a culture and build a culture of psychological safety if that’s not coming from and modeled by your leadership. Of course, it’s a team construct and it’s a team environment, but having that come from the leadership first or come from the leadership really consistently, I think is crucial. And so I think that some of the most successful teams that we’ve worked with, or that I’ve had the opportunity to, to talk with really have a strong leader that that’s able to model that transparency and model those kind of admitting of mistakes and, and model that vulnerability as well.

Cassie Gillespie (31:21):

Yeah, absolutely. I have a follow up question and I know we’re getting near the end of our time, so, but I’m still gonna pitch this to you. One of the challenges that we see sometimes is this sort of like expectations of I’m doing the air quotes, professionalism, and we know that’s all wrapped up in white supremacy culture and sort of like dominant norms about what’s professional. But one of the pieces of that, that I think is so interesting to explore is this idea of being okay at work, right? So, Elizabeth, how are you doing today? Fine. You know, whether you really are or not. And Elizabeth, I’m just picking on you cuz you’re here. You know, listeners, I don’t know.

Cassie Gillespie (32:01):

That’s not something we do all the time, but what, what my question is in this kind of rambly intro is what are either of your thoughts about the relationship between the importance of being kind of genuinely vulnerable as it relates to workplace connectedness and psychological safety, but also sort of staying within I don’t know, some type of comfortable frame of not kind of oversharing your personal stuff at work.

Elizabeth Riley (32:31):

Oh gosh, that is tricky. That is tough. It’s a good question. And I’m gonna try to answer it actually in hopefully a roundabout way that that brings us to a good point, which is this idea of so it’s another, it’s another scale that we use in the, in this organizational assessment, which is this idea of stress recognition and knowing how much maybe difficulties that you might be having either personally or professionally impact your decision making and impact your ability to, to be effective at work. Because, you know, as, as Mike’s been saying, a couple of times, it really is all about outcomes and safety for the children and families we serve. And so having this understanding that, you know, when I’m stressed, whether that’s because of, you know, family stuff that’s going on or, or other work things, you know, I know that I’m not gonna make as sound of decisions or I’m not gonna be thinking through things in the, in the thoughtful and sort of and, and careful way that I might need to.

Elizabeth Riley (33:26):

And so this idea of being able to not be okay at work or at least kind of talk about the fact that, you know, even if you’re not going into a ton of detail, maybe just saying, you know, this, these next couple weeks are gonna be really tough. Either because of family stuff that’s going on or other work projects, you know, I’m maybe gonna be not as, okay, I’m also gonna use the air quotes okay. As I might typically be. So this is a time when I need to reach out to my team for help, or, you know, when someone asks me like, how are you doing kind of, you know, maybe able to say and signal to them. Like, I don’t know, Mike, it’s a, it’s been a really tough couple weeks then that that indicates to Mike who’s on my team that maybe I can use a little bit of extra support. And so I think that there’s, there is a really important aspect of being able to say, I’m not okay, or I’m not as okay as I might might like to be. And that’s gonna make sure that, that it signals to my team and is kind of a reminder to myself to rely on my other resources and to activate those other aspects of my, of my team that might really help me to make better decisions in my work.

Pete Cudney (34:29):

Yeah. That, that, that’s very helpful to me, Elizabeth, my thinking I I’m picturing a group, you know, a team, maybe there’s eight people, someone on that team maybe wants to feel very connected, wants to share a lot about what’s going on in their life, wants others to share someone else on that team might prefer relationships that are a little bit, you know, more boundary than that. And and so the team needs to find this kind of range of connection that can work well enough for everyone on the team. And then if we bring in this concept of stress recognition, individuals, but also the team collectively, then hold responsibility to monitor stress. Where am I at today? If I’m carrying too much stress, what is it that I need from my team, which may be different from what my teammate, Cassie, for example, you know, needs from our same team.

Pete Cudney (35:21):

And then it seems like the, the level of professional intimacy, the, the level of connectedness ideally, is resilient enough, flexible enough that it can meet the needs of, you know, the real kind of open sharing folks and the folks who are a little bit, bit more buttoned up, but ideally folks, what, what teammates are doing is checking in about their and their colleagues stress and then adjusting because that stress really is, is so foundational in terms of clear decision making and also maintaining those connections over time. So thank you for that, Elizabeth, that’s really helpful.

Michael Cull (35:57):

I, that’s such a great way to describe it, Pete. I do think there’s, this is one that we, I, I personally struggle with, cuz I think I’m, I’m maybe a little older and do have sort of, sort of traditional professional boundaries in my mind and like that separation. And I, I think the way you talk about it, actually, it’s probably how we interact in our, our normal life too, right. Outside of work. That we have friends and we have family members that are on some continuum in terms of how much they wanna share or be involved or not be involved. And that that’s the same in a work setting. And we go going back to the definition of psychological safety, it’s this shared experience. It’s something that develops over time. It’s not a something you pull off the shelf and drop into a team. And so it is a process of kind of getting to know who needs, what, when, and I love the monitoring. We, we talked often about how leaders and team members have different responsibilities in, in this particular kind of culture we’re talking about and specific to teams monitoring one another. And their system for signs of stress is, is one of the very specific things that team members need to be able to do.

Cassie Gillespie (37:03):

Yeah. That’s super helpful. So we could talk to you all day, but unfortunately our, our time is kind of running short here. Elizabeth and Mike, if our listeners are curious about you and about the work you’re doing, where can they find you? Where can they learn more?

Michael Cull (37:17):

It would be great if I could just rattle off a web address. we’re, we’re the Center for Innovation and Population Health at the University of Kentucky. I’m sure it’s a quick Google away. And we specifically from that page are the, the safe systems team. So there would be a link to our work from that, that page on the university’s website.

Cassie Gillespie (37:40):

And we can put that right in our show notes, Mike, so folks can go to the page and click and find you,

Michael Cull (37:45):

He saves me Cassie. Thanks.

Cassie Gillespie (37:48):

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has just been fantastic.

Elizabeth Riley (37:52):

Thank you so much for having us. This was great.

Michael Cull (37:55):

Thanks for having us.

Pete Cudney (37:56):

Yeah, I enjoyed it as well. All right guys. Thanks a ton and have a nice day.

Cassie Gillespie (38:01):

Take Care.

Cassie Gillespie (38:04):

Welcome to the Field is produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Our theme music is composed and performed by local band Brick Drop and our sound production and engineering is brought to you by Egan Media Productions. We’d also like to give a special thank you to our in-house technical production assistant Emma Baird. For Welcome to the Field, I’m Cassie Gillespie, and we’ll see you next time.

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